Amerjit Atwal is land and partnerships director for Tilia Homes, with responsibility for their Central Region. She began her career as a typist before moving into buying and working her way up to a senior position, where she now secures major contracts for the business. Amerjit was recently named by Construction Week on their list of the 100 most influential women in construction.
“There’s been a noticeable, much-needed shift in what has inherently been a male dominated industry. There is a greater acceptance of women in construction but we are not fully there yet as an industry.”
From typist to director
I left school at 16 with ten O-Levels but the only skill I really had was my typewriting, so I went to work at a local police station as a typist for a couple of years. Following this, the agency found me a two-week placement to cover holidays at Lovell Partnerships, which was a local housebuilder.
It never crossed my mind that housing was an industry I would ever go into, but I went, literally just to type their letters for two weeks. At the end of the first week, they said they wanted to keep me on and asked me to stay on temping until they found a permanent job for me.
The job that then came up a couple of months later was working for the buying department as their secretary, typing up orders. That’s where it really all evolved. I showed an interest and I couldn’t see myself typing orders for the rest of my days, so I then started doing a bit more, placing orders for consumables, and they invited me to do my Ordinary National Certificate and Higher National Certificate in building studies so I could get an insight into construction.
As I completed my studies, I was then given a job in the pre-contract department where I was essentially working with the estimating team, pricing new work and sending out enquiries, and so it evolved from there.
As the role progressed, I was able to become an estimator and I left Lovells as a senior estimator after 16 years because the company that was Kier Living at the time came in and headhunted me, and I have been there for 17 years, ten of which have been as a director. Kier has now become Tilia Homes as in May 2022 Kier Group sold Kier Living to a company called Terra Firma, and then Tilia Homes was formed.
Integrity, professionalism and tenacity
I start each day at eight o’clock every morning. I enjoy the job and the challenges it brings. In my role, I’ve got the overall responsibility in securing the [Central] region’s new business.
Over the years I’ve built up a wealth of knowledge in delivering housing solutions, not only in the private sector, but also in the public sector, and at all times, maximising the development returns for the business. I’ll secure simple land acquisitions but I’ve also structured some very complex land deals over the years.
I get a good overview of the business because of the position I’m in and I relish the challenge of securing the next deal. I’m extremely motivated and committed, and am recognised for my integrity, professionalism and tenacity because I believe it’s all about leading people by example and learning from them too.
We have to think outside the box or look at different ways of structuring opportunities, for example with different tenures and investments. There can be a big leap of faith required to embark on projects, requiring significant amounts of investment, that have sometimes been sat there for some years because they have previously been thought of as too difficult to develop.
For example, The Avenue housing site at Wingerworth, just outside Chesterfield, has been built on a former coking plant and it was previously the dirtiest site in Europe. We frequently work with the public sector and we’ve never shied away from trying to unlock the ‘difficult’ schemes that need innovative solutions.
The power of alternative viewpoints
In my time I’ve found that providing alternative viewpoints not only gets to the right answer quicker, but it also takes account of the client’s needs and provides commercial benefits too. I’ve been fortunate to be on the board in our region where we’ve had three female directors and that really does bring a different kind of thinking to the table, a different perspective to troubleshooting that may not have been considered.
Thinking creatively to have a positive impact on the environment and the local community
I’ve been in this role for 17 years now and have been involved with many high-profile projects like The Avenue and Hardingstone, where we’ve been responsible for creating new neighbourhoods where people want to live, work, and play. We start by maximising the efficient use of housing land, but to meet planning requirements we must also have more than adequate provision of affordable housing, public amenity and green infrastructure, which is a balancing act that we face on all our new build developments.
Customer expectations these days have changed so building and selling them a house is simply not enough. It’s our job to be sensitive to the needs of the people who are going be living in our homes so we have to maximise the recreational qualities of a site whilst not losing sight of the commercial targets that we have to achieve.
So, we focus on placemaking with environmental sustainability and we enhance the diversity of the green infrastructure during the design process, with the aim of creating a sense of belonging and cohesion to make a positive impact on the environment and the local community.
A noticeable and much-needed shift
There’s been a noticeable, much-needed shift in what has inherently been a male-dominated industry. There is a greater acceptance of women in construction but we are not fully there yet as an industry.
Historically, over 99% of the business was run by men except for admin staff, who were predominantly women, so you can’t get from there to women at all levels immediately. We’ve got to train people, develop people, and literally break down barriers. At Tilia, we drive this through our behaviours, which are inclusive, proud, and trusted.
And these are the core values that we seek in new recruits and are integral to our recruitment process. As we try to attract new people, we want them to share the same beliefs. Personally, I think inclusivity isn’t about superficial initiatives, it’s about changing perceptions so this has to be at the root of our culture. Part of that comes from training our management teams and our future leaders.
Passionate and respectful
My advice to girls and women would be to not be threatened or put off by the fact that it’s perceived to be a male-dominated industry, and not to let that deter you. There are plenty of strong women who have made brilliant careers for themselves and there will continue to be many more.
Be passionate and respectful, and you will inspire others to follow. That’s how I’ve led throughout my working life. I hope that the girls reading this will be some of our future leaders and as long as they’re willing to put in the work and believe in themselves, they can find success in a similar vein.
I mean, from starting out as a temporary secretary for two weeks to reaching the position I’m in today just shows that drive, determination and a hardworking ethic can lead to success.
I can’t necessarily think of any one particular individual who’s been my role model but I do look across many different people that I’ve been fortunate enough to work with that I’ve admired and I try and emulate their positive qualities. I hope that I’ve succeeded in doing so.
I do think that the diversity of the industry is one thing that people probably don’t appreciate. Construction is about more than building houses or building bridges, it’s such a complex and diverse industry where we only just scratch the surface. It’s a really good community to be involved in and one where you can really start forging really powerful and long-standing relationships
Coming up next
In work, I’m relishing the challenges of securing the next deal and getting the current ones I’ve got over the line.
In my personal life, I’m looking forward to the festive period and being able to spend quality time with my loved ones, and also watching the World Cup. I do like football and I’ll be cheering very loudly for England!